Why I’ll Be in Church This Sunday

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Inside Church view at Water Baptism. Photo by Agapeoc [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia

There have been a flurry of reports and articles about the decline in church membership and attendance. The only category that seems to be rising is the “nones,” those who claim no affiliation, even if they would consider themselves “spiritual.” My work takes me into a number of different congregations, and my own sense is that there are more empty seats in recent years, bearing out what these studies are saying.

I could speculate about the causes, and many have, but I have no clue what is happening, to be honest. Maybe you do and can enlighten me. It also strikes me that it would be easy to throw programs and gimmicks at this. I’m not sure this would help. Gathering for worship is probably one of the most voluntary acts in modern life–one that comes more out of reasons of the heart than any effort to compel attendance. I may have to show up for work, or class, or weekly book group, or music rehearsal. Not so for worship in most cases.

So why will I be in church this Sunday?

Some is simply a matter of habit. I’ve been in worship most Sundays since I was probably about five years old. But habits are not necessarily bad. Habits of self care are good for my health and hygiene. I have to admit that I don’t always enjoy exercise. But exercising has become a habit. A habit with good consequences.

Gathering for worship has the good consequence of reminding this person who can all too often consider himself the center of the universe that God is, as well as the wild truth that the God of the universe is crazy about us pea-brained human beings. It is a relief to go to a place where you discover again and again that you are loved “just because….” The readings, the hymns and songs, the prayers, the confession all remind me of these bedrock truths that ground my life.

A statement out of Fleming Rutledge’s Three Hours grabbed me. “There is no other way to be a disciple of Jesus than to be in communion with other disciples of Jesus” I decided, maybe surrendered to relentless pursuit is a better word, to follow Jesus many years ago. Ever since, Jesus has been pulling me out of my propensity to go it alone–self-sufficient and self-protecting. Gathering with people, I would probably no more choose than the family I was born into, pulls me out of myself–to teach a class of giggly elementary school girls and rowdy boys, to pray for someone’s aunt I’ve never met, and to go through all the good and rough seasons of life with people who in time become dear brothers and sisters in Christ, and no longer just that person so different from me. It is odd how showing up with others, and for others over a few decades can change us.

I actually believe, when I recall it, that worship is about God coming and speaking to his people each week. It can come through a hymn or song, or a prayer. Often it comes through a pastor’s message. Maybe we are more blessed than we know to have a pastor who I believe tries to listen to God and what God wants said from the scripture for the week. Often, I discover that there is a sacred sense that is quite different than the common sense I live by.

Incidentally, I think showing up can encourage the pastor. I’ve been on the other side of the lectern and a room full of attentive people encourages one’s heart. Each of us matters. In some ethnic communities, there is a sense that the sermon is as much the congregation’s responsibility as the preacher’s. That’s what “call and response” is all about.

Also, I believe a church is a group of people on a journey together. Sunday isn’t just about listening for some personally inspiring thought. It is also about listening to the One who wants to help us navigate the journey together and knows the road. Church is about listening for what the Guide would say to us. This pulls me out of what I want for this group into what God wants.

In a society that seems to increasingly lodge its hope in political, media, business, or sports heroes, all of whom sooner or later are shown to have clay feet, worship reminds me that there is a kingdom that is not of this world, a perspective that comes from somewhere else, and a time frame of eternity that ought shape our lives.

Finally, gathering with other Christians in a local congregation reminds me of all the places this is happening around the world, and that “love one another” has a much larger scope that transcends national boundaries, and ethnic groups, and social classes. This past Easter Sunday, I arrived at church stunned by the bombing of Sri Lankan churches, and concerned for the safety of two Sri Lankan friends. I was reminded of the global family I was part of who were gathering time zone after time zone across the planet, and in this moment, sharing in the grief of Sri Lankan believers.

That solidarity in our community results in practical partnership with a collection of other local congregations, teaming up to host a community garden, food pantry, medical clinic, and to collect supplies for school children, infants, and even pets in low income households. Together, these churches and other community groups saved a local wetland from developers. Gathering Sunday by Sunday moves us to pray globally and act locally each week.

For these reasons, and perhaps more, I will be in church this Sunday.

 

 

Learning About Your Home Town

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Vintage postcard of the downtown Youngstown, Ohio skyline

For the past five years I’ve been on a journey of learning about the place where I grew up, Youngstown, Ohio. You can read all about it if you click “On Youngstown,” where all my posts, and readers’ comments may be found. Recently, I’ve talked to several friends who have been inspired by these posts and have begun researching and writing about the towns where they grew up and their own memories of that experience. Based on my own experience, it is something I would highly encourage.

It has brought back a number of good memories of people, places, and experiences that shaped the person I’ve become. It has afforded chances to express gratitude to some who are still living, and chances to honor those who have passed. Remembering has again and again brought a smile to my face, particularly when some long lost memory surfaces. Sure, I have some bad memories as well. I tend not to write about those online, but to understand how these have shaped me as well brings the gift of self-understanding.

I’ve discovered how much I did not know about my home town–and that I’m not alone. It’s odd that with all the things we learn in school, we don’t learn about our home towns, especially when the names of places and the places themselves often have such interesting stories behind them.

Writing about this online has brought me in touch with a whole community of people from my home town from high school classmates to people I’ve never met, but who share the same experiences of people and place. Often, they remind me of things I’ve forgotten about, or in some cases never knew.

And that leads into another reason. Learning about one’s home town is like a real-life detective story. One fact sparks a question, or another memory, and chasing that down usually leads to two or three others. That’s why five years have passed and I’m still coming up with new ideas.

Your memories are history. If nothing else, it is family history, and other relatives may appreciate it. But I’ve found myself consulting oral histories to learn about everything from pizza recipes to working conditions to local traditions. Local history is a collection of personal histories.

I think learning about a place fosters love for it. I think that can be true of the place where we grew up, and if we’ve moved, the place where we now live. Learning about a place and recalling our own memories of that place are what makes it special to us. Sadly, I think it is possible to live in places without caring for them. I don’t like to think of the consequences of that when it is true of most of those living in a place.

How might one start? I’d suggest starting by thinking of all your favorites: foods, activities, music, hangouts and other places, people. It might help to think through the seasons of the year, or different periods of your life: early childhood, elementary school, middle and high school, post secondary school, etc. Probably as you start writing or recording your memories, questions will occur to you: where did that name come from, why are so many things named after this person, how did my town get its start, how did it grow? Or pick one aspect of your home town that interests you, and try to find out all you can about it.

Where do you go to find answers to what you don’t know? It has been fun to build a library of books about my home town and you might look online for what has been written about yours. In some cases, you might even find free works online in the public domain. Google is amazing for searching down online resources. Beyond this, if you really get into the local history, your local historical society (most towns have them) or library can be a trove of resources. Becoming a sleuth chasing down your questions is part of the fun!

If you do this, I’d love to hear from you, and compare notes. I’m sure each of us will think our home town was the best. And we will be right.

 

Review: The Second Kind of Impossible

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The Second Kind of ImpossiblePaul J. Steinhardt. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019.

Summary: A narrative of the search for a new form of matter, first theorized, then synthesized, and then first found in a mineral collection of questionable provenance that gave tantalizing hints that it might really exist.

This is a real science detective story. It has all the hopeful leads and unsettling reverses of a detective mystery, and one where the lead character, in this case the lead researcher, finds himself in a situation far removed from the normal environs of a theoretical physicist.

It begins with the question of whether an impossible five-fold symmetry could be possible under some circumstance.  Then Paul Steinhardt, and a graduate student, Dov Levine,  began began looking for a loophole to the forbidden five-fold symmetry, and found it, suggesting the possibility for something they termed quasi-crystals. Meanwhile, in another lab, a researcher synthesized a compound that turned out to have the predicted electron diffraction pattern. It takes the two labs a couple years to find out about each other but it demonstrates that something that seems impossible can actually exist, hence the title of this book, coming from Richard Feynman’s response to a paper by Steinhardt, who had been mentored by him. It was the kind of impossible that defies known knowledge but has an intriguing logic to it.

The next phase of Steinhardt’s research was to discover whether such a quasi-crystal actually exists in nature–the quest for a needle in a haystack as it were. He and a student comb mineral collections around the world, looking for promising diffraction patterns. They strike out over and over again until they find one sample in an Italian mineral collection administered by Luca Bindi. Part two of this book describes all the tests to confirm that this tiny sample indeed has a quasi-crystal imbedded in it and all the arguments against it. Then another sample is discovered in Russia, but the scientist, a Russian official, will not share it except for an exorbitant price. Furthermore, questions arise about both samples and their provenance–until the field researcher who actually found the material is discovered and agrees to help them find the tiny stream and collect additional samples.

The third part of the book is the trip to this stream, in a remote part of the Kamchatka Peninsula. Steinhardt, who has never done this kind of field work, is leader of the team, and against all the improbabilities, the challenges of mosquitoes, weather, bears, and the terrain, they find additional samples, leading to discoveries of other quasi-crystals, and clues to how this material was formed.

One of the fascinating qualities of this book was the quest that started with a theoretical question and eventually led to a remote peninsula of Kamchatka. For those not acquainted with the life of a research scientist, this account captures something of the excitement of pursuing a really interesting research question, how one question can lead to another, and the roadblocks and dead ends researchers sometimes encounter along the way. What we realize eventually is that all this takes over thirty years, and involves collaboration with a number of researchers from Russia, Italy, and all over the U.S. It is not the only research Steinhardt works on, but imagine spending most of one’s adult working life pursuing a research question. The combination of curiosity and sheer perseverance commands a certain kind of respect.

The other fascinating aspect of this book was understanding how research science works. Richard Feynman is not the only one to declare “impossible.” Some did so with outright opposition for good scientific reasons. This happens constantly in the submission of research papers and at scientific conferences. Steinhardt enlists his opponents on his research team, forming a “red team” and a “blue team” with opposing views. The opposing teams were good at recommending all the tests that would eliminate alternative possibilities. Eventually the opposition, formidable researchers in their own right, are convinced–but that took years.

This is a good book to illustrate the skepticism, the meticulous rigor, and the self-correcting character of scientific research at its best. The other wonderful aspect that arises out of this process is the international collaboration of people willing to share knowledge, samples, and credit, to advance a shared understanding of the world, indeed the universe. In short, this is a great book to see how science really works at its best.

Review: Three Hours

Three Hours

Three Hours: Sermons for Good FridayFleming Rutledge. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2019.

Summary: Short messages on the “seven last words” of Christ on the cross, preached on Good Friday of 2018.

One of the ways churches have remembered the death of Christ on the cross on what is called Good Friday is through a three hour service from noon until 3 pm, usually organized around the seven “words” of Jesus from the cross, interspersed with liturgy, hymns, prayers, and silence.

Fleming Rutledge gave seven meditations on these “seven last words” at St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, New York City on Good Friday, March 30, 2018. These meditations were published, with little alteration earlier this year, and served as my own Good Friday meditations this past Friday.

Each of these short meditations left me with a thought for reflection. This may or may not have been Rutledge’s focus, but I share these as much to capture them for myself, as well as to give you a taste of what is here. There is much more to each short meditation than my summary thought!

Luke 23:32-34. “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” What about those who know what they are doing, as is the case for all of us at times? Christ is the one who died to justify the ungodly!

Luke 23:39-43. “Verily, I say unto thee, Today thou shalt be with me in paradise.” We speculate much about the afterlife. We focus little on what it means when Jesus says that it will be “with him.” “In his presence is fullness of joy!”

John 19: 26-27. “Woman, behold thy son!…Behold thy mother!” Two unrelated believers become kin. “There is no other way to be a disciple of Jesus than to be in communion with other disciples of Jesus” (p, 32).

Matthew 27:45-46. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus “steered toward the pain” and plumbed the very bottom of despair and alienation as he “became sin” and surrendered to Death. This is the one who has defeated Death and Hell, whose love, nothing can separate us from.

John 19:28-29. “I thirst.” Water is life. Living water is nothing less than real water–the water from Jesus side along with his life-giving blood. The one who thirsted now says, “come to the water.”

John 19:29-30. “It is finished.” Rutledge writes, “The crucifixion is not just an unfortunate thing that happened to Jesus on his way to the resurrection. It is not a momentary blip on the arc of his ascent to the Father. John tells us otherwise. It is precisely on the cross that the work of Jesus is carried through to its completion” (p. 67). Tetelestai!

Luke 23:44-46. “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” In Flannery O’Connor’s words quoted here, “The creative action of the Christian’s life is to prepare his death in Christ.” We each may commend our lives to the Father through this Son.

It was the reading of Rutledge’s magnificent study on the crucifixion (review) that prompted me to buy this book. In much briefer form, I found the same depth of thoughtfulness, and elegance and economy of words. More than this, I was led to meditate through the Seven Words on the meaning of the cross–who Christ died for, the community Christ established, the hope of being “with him,” and the cross as the consummation of Christ’s work. I found myself stopping again and again and saying, “Hallelujah, what a Savior!”

This review comes too late for you to read this on Good Friday in 2019. But it is far from too late to acquire and read this book, particularly if you rushed through Passion Week preparing for Easter, or to have on hand for next year. This book will bear multiple readings and I look forward to returning to it again and again.

 

Review: The Great Awakening

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The Great Awakening: A History of the Revival of Religion in the Time of Edwards and WhitfieldJoseph Tracy. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2019 (first published 1842).

Summary: A reprint of the first comprehensive history of the English and colonial revivals of the late 1730’s and early 1740’s, focusing in New England and upon the work of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield.

In New England in the 1730’s, if one had been baptized in infancy into the church, had given assent to its doctrines and led a life without scandalous behavior, this was sufficient to receive communion, even if one could not give an account of God’s saving work, or “regeneration” in one’s life. Regeneration is the idea of passing from being dead in one’s sins to spiritually alive in Christ through a gracious work of God’s Spirit. One passes from deep concern and dread concerning one’s state to great consolation as one knows one’s sins forgiven through Christ and that one is now alive in Christ and able under God’s grace of living a life pleasing to God.

Due to this state of affairs, men even entered the ministry without such an experience of the grace of God. It was sometimes the case that in an affluent household of several sons, one of these took a church position, in part to relieve stretched family finances. As Jonathan Edwards, and others began to address this issue of the “unconverted” within the church, a great revival broke out. It began with many being greatly troubled about the state of their souls. Edwards urged people to trust not in their good acts but to resign themselves to God, hoping in the work of Christ to be accepted by God. There were no “anxious benches” or altar calls of the later revivals. The belief was that God would come in God’s time to whom God would, to save, and God did. Many reported experiencing great comfort and consolation in God’s grace, and there was a new liveliness of holy living and service in the lives of many of these.

Joseph Tracy was a Congregational minister who lived from 1798 to 1874. This work by Tracy represents the first comprehensive history of the Great Awakening, particularly focusing on the events of 1740-42, when this awakening was at its peak. What he does is feature the two major figures of the revival, Edwards and Whitefield, and reports of revivals in various parts of the American colonies (with one chapter on Whitefield in England). This is a valuable historical document because Tracy cites many primary source reports written at, or shortly after the time of the Revival. many of these accounts repeat occurrences along the pattern of great concern, an experience of consoling grace, and transformation of behavior following.

The reports also recount the controversies that arise which include the following:

  • Excesses of emotion, faintings, other bodily manifestations. Quickly, wise leaders like Edwards grasped that these are not definitive signs of awakening grace, which is most evident in the amended life of converts. They are neither necessary nor conclusive of conversion, and may be either genuine adjuncts or spurious in nature.
  • Declarations that ministers were “unconverted.” While there were unconverted ministers, and a legitimate concern for the state of their souls, some revivalists made sweeping, summary and public statements about the unconverted character of particular ministers which often did not go down well.
  • Itineracy. A number followed the example of Whitefield in going from town to town preaching rather than confining their ministry to a particular place. This was not a problem when a minister longing for the benefit of his people invited a guest to preach, but this courtesy was not always observed, and open-air preaching circumvented the need for such invitations, but amount to “sheep stealing” in the eyes of local ministers.
  • Exhorters. These were unordained enthusiasts who arose particularly out of the concern that existing ministers were unconverted.
  • Excesses or errors on the part of revivalists. This was most noteworthy in the case of Rev. James Davenport, who made wholesale judgments against ministers, acted more by “impulses” of the Spirit that scriptural warrant, and gathered numerous informal assemblies in homes and public places.

Tracy recounts all of this through reports, public statements of individuals and church bodies, and other documents of the time. Some of this can be heavy going if one is reading straight through but it is a trove of insight second only to Jonathan Edwards Religious Affections on the nature of spiritual awakenings, and the controversies, excesses and errors that may arise amid a genuine work of God.

He also shows the efforts of some, no doubt looking at the excesses and errors, and perhaps stinging from questions about their own spiritual state, to thwart the efforts of the preachers of the Awakening. We see the maturation of a Whitefield, who is able to acknowledge errors while not relenting in what he sees to be a God-given ministry, or Edwards, whose careful reflection and pastoral leadership addresses problems, and then offers a record of abiding value.

If you bog down amid the various accounts, don’t turn from this book without reading the final chapter on “The Results.” Tracy believed that as many as 50,000 were converted, and that the transformation of so many substantively affected the character of the colonies at the time of the War for Independence. It led to a renewed concern for the spiritual qualifications of the minister, fostered mission efforts, laid a basis for religious liberties, and led to the establishment of Dartmouth, Brown, Rutgers, and Princeton.

I hear a renewed hunger for revival and awakening in many circles. The value of a book like this is to give theological substance, as well as practical warnings, that may prove useful should God be so gracious as to grant this work in his churches in our day. This history also warns us of the temptations of pride and censoriousness for preachers in the center of such movements, most evident in the ministry of Davenport. Banner of Truth Trust is to be applauded in bringing this classic work of history of the Awakening of 1740 to a new generation, who hopefully will benefit from the experience of those who have gone before.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Welsh in Youngstown

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Welsh Congregational Church building. Photo by Nyttend. Public Domain via Wikimedia

When I was a student at Youngstown State, I would often finish classes in the afternoon and walk down to McKelvey’s, either to work on Monday and Thursday evenings when they were open, or to catch a ride home on other days, with my father, who also worked there. My route would take me past the magnificent St. Columba’s, but also past a much plainer church building on the other side of Elm St., the Welsh Congregational Church. The church had wood siding painted white, similar to many churches one sees in rural towns, but with a cruciform shape with the two arms toward the front of the building. Dormer windows had crosses above them, and a steeple topped the entry facade.

I knew Youngstown was a mix of many ethnic communities, but I knew absolutely nothing about the Welsh community in Youngstown. In writing about Youngstown over the last several years, I discovered that the Welsh played an important role in the development of the coal, iron, and steel industry in the city. David Tod, who opened one of the first coal mines in Brier Hill, employed John Davis to run his mining operation. Davis played a crucial role in recruiting a number of other Welsh immigrants to come to the Mahoning Valley. Welshman William Philpot built the Eagle Furnace in Brier Hill and William Richards, another Welshman managed the operation. By the 1840’s, there was a sizable community living in Brier Hill and elsewhere. 

The Welsh are known for their singing.  Music festivals known as eisteddfods were major occasions with various choirs competing for top honors. Given the robust Welsh community in Youngstown, it was the home for the first eisteddfod in Ohio in 1860, and the first annual state competition in 1885. St. David is the patron saint of Wales, and Saint David’s Day, March 1, is another time when the Welsh gathered for food and song. The St. David’s Society was formed in 1891 in Youngstown, hosting banquets complete with music and storytelling down to this day. At one time, in the early 1900’s, up to 15,000 Welsh from Youngstown and surrounding areas gathered for annual picnics at Idora Park.

In 1845, a group of Welsh formed a Congregational Church in Brier Hill. The name reflected their history as churches independent of the Church of England in England and Wales. Thomas Evans was their first pastor.  In 1861, Thomas W. Davis became the church’s pastor and they built the church I walked past 110 or so years later. It quickly became a center of Welsh community activities. In 1887, the building underwent major reconstruction, essentially in the form it survives in to this day.

The church worshiped at this site for over 100 years. In 1976, the building was sold to the Messiah Holiness Church of God in Christ, who worshiped there until 1997, when a fire resulted in the building being permanently closed. This would spell the end of most buildings, but in 1986, the building was registered in the National Register of Historic Places because of its architecture and community history. It is the oldest church building in Youngstown.

The Youngstown Catholic Diocese now owns the property, wants to preserve the building while re-purposing the space, and has asked Youngstown CityScape, a non-profit involved in beautification and redevelopment efforts in the greater downtown, to move the building. Youngstown CityScape has funds to move the building, which has been deemed architecturally sound for such a move, and are seeking funds to renovate the building, at an estimated cost of $700,000. The problem has been finding a suitable site nearby. Originally, there were plans to move the church building to Wick Park, where CityScape has been engaged in a number of improvement projects. That move has been nixed, and other sites have been proposed from land in the Youngstown Land Bank, to the “Wedge” greenspace near the Steel Museum, to the site of St. Anthony’s on the River on Oak Hill. A major issue for any location is that the city not be saddled with ongoing costs.

It is not clear at this time what the solution is. One clearly needs to be found soon to avoid further deterioration of the building, necessitating razing the structure. It is a significant part of Youngstown history, representing a community that contributed significantly to the building of the city, and the oldest house of worship in the city. Perhaps it is time for an appeal to St. David…

Sources for this article:

Howard C. Aley, A Heritage to Share: The Bicentennial History of Youngstown and Mahoning County (Youngstown: The Bicentennial Commission of Youngstown and Mahoning County, Ohio, 1975), pp. 45-46.

Welsh Congregational Church,” Wikipedia

William Osborn, Music in Ohio (Kent: Kent State University Press, 2004), p. 363.

Linda Linonis, “St. David’s Society Preserves Welsh Heritage,” The Vindicator, February 19, 2014.

The Old Welsh Congregational Church,” Y-Town is My Town, Monday April 10, 2006.

CityScape shares plans to move Welsh church to Wick Park,” The Vindicator, July 20, 2018.

Graig Graziosi, “Welsh Congregational Church may stay put for the moment,” The Vindicator, September 16, 2018.

Wick Park no longer site for relocating Youngstown’s oldest church,”  WKBN.com,  September 27, 2018.

Preserve Wick Park,” Facebook.

Jordyn Grzelewski, “Oak Hill Collaborative announces sale of former Anthony’s On the River,” The Vindicator, November 29, 2018.

 

Review: The 21

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The 21: A Journey into the Land of the Coptic MartyrsMartin Mosebach, translated by Alta L. Price. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2018.

Summary: An account of the background and faith of the twenty-one men martyred on a Libyan beach by ISIS, profiling their village, family, the Coptic faith, and the challenges of living as a minority religion throughout history.

Twenty-one men in orange jumpsuits walk single file along a Libyan beach, each accompanied by a hooded figure clothed in black. They are forced to their knees with a figure in black behind each, holding their color with one hand, the other hand on a sheathed dagger. Then the speech “The Message Signed with Blood to the Nation of the Cross.” Then back to the kneeling men, who in the last moments of their lives softly pray, “Ya Rabbi Yassou!” (O My Lord Jesus!). The video resumes, twenty one decapitated bodies, heads laid on their backs.

With this, twenty Coptic migrant workers and a Ghanaian Christian who had joined their company, become martyrs and saints. Icons are printed of each with the martyr’s crown. Their remains become sacred relics.

Martin Mosebach traveled to Egypt to explore the families, the village, the land, and the faith associated with these men, a group he refuses to call “victims”  because “they had a strength that granted them a well-protected inner core of independence, and I was convinced their murderers cruelty couldn’t penetrate that deep.”

He begins with a dialogue on martyrdom with a “doubter” exploring what to many of us is the strange phenomenon of people who accept the consequence of death out of love for Christ. Mosebach then takes us on an exploration of the culture out of which these men came. He interviews the bishop of these men and discusses the history of oppression and martyrdom etched deeply into the Coptic Church. He visits first their pilgrimage church, and then their village El-Aour, in upper village. We meet their families, most in new homes because of assistance by the Egyptian government. We hear of men who were good sons, husbands, and people of integrity and piety, yet ordinary young men. One, after hearing a sermon about martyrdom said, “I’m ready.” We meet Fathers Abuna and Timotheus, who had ministered to the migrant workers in Libya until it had become too dangerous. They tell of this group sharing a single room to send more home to their families, their readiness for martyrdom, and Issam, who especially seemed to play a role in strengthening the resolve of the others.

The latter part of the book goes more deeply into the Coptic Church, the liturgy that shaped them, their special connection with the flight of the holy family into Egypt, the church hierarchy that mirrors the heavenly hierarchy of angels and archangels, the cloisters. We also zoom out to the larger context of Egypt and the cave churches of Mokattam next to the garbage mountain, old and New Cairo, and the minority that calls itself “The Church of the Martyrs” in a time of increasingly tenuous relations with the Muslim majority.

Mosebach neither glorifies or denigrates any of this. Rather, he takes these people on their own terms. He brings to life a church most of us know little about, that has preserved the ancient faith from earliest Christianity, has survived and even revived under great pressure, and whose people have lived with martyrdom, not as a theoretical possibility, but a possible reality.

Through Mosebach, the martyrs also bear witness (what the word “martyr” means) to those of us in the West. They bear witness to love for Christ in the face of death. They bear witness to faithfulness as a religious minority when conversion would be easy and safe. We also see working men, some illiterate, trying to support their families, now pictured with martyrs crowns. One thinks about the last being first, the humble exalted. Many who will read this have far more education and other resources. I do, and I find myself wondering, both how I would respond, faced with what they were faced with, and whether many of us will be among the “least of these” honoring these men.

The Coptic Church has been a footnote in my church history. Through this book, I realized that I need to reconsider that outlook. Might they be one of those parts of the body of Christ worthy of greater honor? Might there be gifts they have been entrusted with, as well as an important history, that the rest of the church needs? Above all, if we are entering a post-Christian world, they may have much to teach us of how, then, we might live…and die.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Seeking the Lofty

Wilder Quote

I came across this quote yesterday, on the birthday of Thornton Wilder, its author. It reflects one of the bedrock ideas of this blog. I am convinced that a life well-lived is shaped by the pursuit of the “lofty.” Any social structure, from a family, to a business, to a country flourishes to the degree that it pursues the good, the true, and the beautiful rather than the tawdry, the base, and the unjust.

The Apostle Paul said something similar:

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8, NIV)

I’m struck with Paul’s repeated “whatever’s.” One might most naturally think of sacred scriptures, prayers, or other religious texts. Paul and Thornton Wilder agree. To read, hear, or see great works, whatever they might be, are necessary to “seeking the lofty.”

Implicit in both statements is the idea that there may be other than great things to read, hear, and see and other than lofty lives we might live. We are formed and shaped by what we read, and see, and hear, and think about for good or for ill, every day.

This blog represents my own attempt to curate a reading life around the qualities Paul mentions. As quickly as I read, I can only read in a lifetime a few thousand out of the vast number of books that have ever been published. The real question is, do I want a life that is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy? If my answer to that is yes, then why would I read–or for that matter view or listen to–anything lacking in these qualities.

I don’t think this means that we only engage things that look like a Thomas Kinkade painting, reflecting some idyllic world. I would read no crime fiction were that case–nor  the Bible for that matter! Great works often do portray the underside of life, but their effect at the end of the day is not to encourage me to embrace that life, but to strive for something better, to repent my sins, to leave aside meanness and selfishness and small-mindedness.

It does mean that all of us become curators of the material we admit to the museum, the library, the concert hall, of our lives. Every publisher, every librarian, every museum curator, every one who creates a playlist curates. So do the people who feed us the news, whether via social media, online websites, print or televised media. The question is whether we will forfeit the curation of our lives, and the things we see, and read, and watch to someone else. It is an important question if we are “seeking the lofty.”

I don’t want to curate your life. My own is more than enough challenge, one for which I need great grace. I do hope that what I write, and the books I commend point toward some “great work” that may enrich at least some moments of your days. I sometimes despair that our modern world is descending into balefulness, barrenness, and banality. I need voices from beyond the void to remind me of the lofty. I hope in some small way I might be one.

 

WWJDO?

 

Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Merchants_Chased_from_the_Temple_(Les_vendeurs_chassés_du_Temple)_-_James_Tissot

James Tissot, The Merchants Chased from the Temple. Public Domain via Wikimedia

Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. (Matthew 21:12, NIV)

 

This verse was in the Palm Sunday reading at my church this past Sunday. I should mention that my reflections here may bear scant resemblance to my pastor’s sermon, so this only reflects the workings of my mind, not what my pastor had to say (which I also remember!).

I was thinking about some of the recent “What would Jesus…?” slogans. There was “What Would Jesus Do?” complete with bracelets. Later on, some environmentally oriented Christians started a campaign with the slogan “what would Jesus drive?”. This verse inspired me with a new one: “who would Jesus drive out?”

The context is that Jesus is standing in the temple courts. More precisely, he is standing in the court of the Gentiles–the closest that Gentiles  who are “God-fearers” and want to worship Yahweh are permitted to come. The sellers provided a service for Jews who wanted to offer sacrifices, providing a money exchange (probably at a tidy profit) into the approved temple currency. Then they sold birds and other approved sacrificial animals for those who didn’t want to transport them long distances. There was probably a calculation that this was a convenient location. The Gentiles, if there were any who were interested, were considered unclean. They should be glad they are even allowed here, amid the bargaining and calls and cries of the birds and animals–and all the smells of a barnyard. Not exactly welcoming for a Gentile wanting to worship Yahweh. I suspect a more than a few turned away.

Who did Jesus drive out (WWJDO)? It was those whose presence and actions turned spiritually hungry outsiders away from God. It was those who, by their actions, made God their exclusive preserve. We might be troubled by what seems an act of anger, but the focus here is an act that sets things to right, and communicates God’s displeasure with their exclusionary actions.

Strictly speaking, there is no longer a physical temple or a “court of the Gentiles.” The only temple now is the people of God (1 Peter 2:5). So who would Jesus drive out, today?

It would seem to me that it is any whose actions turn people away from Christ and the people of God. It might be intentional or unintentional. I suspect in suggesting this, you may already be composing a mental list of those Jesus would drive away. I have to admit that this is where my mind went when I heard these ways.

Of course, everyone on my list was someone else. I was notably absent from the list. And I started to wonder about that:

  • I wondered about who it is I’ve welcomed and who I’ve ignored.
  • I wondered about whether there are some groups I’ve written off as unworthy or uninterested in God.
  • I wondered if at times I’ve only planned for or reached out to those “like me.”
  • I wondered if I’ve been content with having people at my dinner table and leadership “table” who are like me.
  • I wonder if there are those who have turned away from considering Christ because of what they have seen of my life.

Would I be among those Jesus would drive out? It seems that Lent, and particularly Passion Week is a time for self-examination rather than finger-pointing. It is a time to ask, are there things that I am blind to that are driving people away from God, and could drive me away as well? From what must I repent? Where have I been justifying myself?

What is clear is that Jesus wanted to include far more than those he drove out (who by no means were permanently excluded). The verse Jesus quotes is Isaiah 56:7, which says, “For My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.” Jesus is the one who welcomes those who say, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). He is the one who promises rest to the weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

Who would Jesus drive out?

Guest Review: Old Earth or Evolutionary Creation?

old earth

Old-Earth or Evolutionary Creation? Discussing Origins with Reasons to Believe and BioLogosEdited by Kenneth Keathley, J. B. Stump, and Joe Aguirre. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary:  Dialogue between BioLogos (evolutionary creation) and Reasons to Believe (old-earth creationism), moderated by Southern Baptist Convention seminary professors.

This book is the result of a series of meetings between representatives of BioLogos, advocates of evolutionary creation, and Reasons to Believe (RTB), advocates of old-earth creation.

I liked the structure of this book. Each chapter begins with an introduction and questions by a Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) moderator, followed by responses from a representative of each organization. Then there is a redirect by the moderator with specific follow-up questions for each respondent, followed by their responses and a conclusion by the chapter moderator.

Topics covered include biblical interpretation and authority, the range of viable positions concerning Adam and Eve, natural evil, divine action, the scientific method, biological evolution, the geological evidence, the fossil evidence, the biological evidence, and the anthropological evidence.

The purpose of the book is to “help lay readers identify science-faith issues, comprehend what the two organizations stand for, understand the nature of their dialogue and what the two organizations hope to achieve through it, and appreciate how they and the church at large can benefit from the conversation.” (p. 6)

BioLogos is committed to the following core doctrines: (1) Humans are created “in the image of God,” with a special relationship to God and a role to play in God’s creation, (2) All humans who have ever lived have sinned by rebelling against God’s revealed will, and (3) God has dealt with sin through Christ’s incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and promised return. (p. 50)

Within that commitment, BioLogos suggests four potentially viable scenarios for interpreting Genesis 2-3 that could be consistent with both biological evolution and their core doctrines. In response, Ken Samples of RTB concisely states the traditional case for a historical Adam and Eve as the progenitors of all humanity. RTB’s objections to the creation of mankind via biological evolution focus on both the theological difficulties and the biological evidence.

Loren Haarsma of BioLogos presents a good discussion of the interaction of science and biblical interpretation, including the observation that, “BioLogos does not believe that science trumps theology or biblical interpretation, but we do believe that theology and biblical interpretation can draw useful insights from scientific discoveries.” (p. 50)

Darrel Falk of BioLogos points out that “many of us who subscribe to evolutionary creation do believe in a historical Adam and Eve. It is important to emphasize that mainstream science does not imply that Adam and Eve did not exist, just that they could not have been the only two progenitors of the human race.” (p. 136)

The most interesting chapters are the two where BioLogos and RTB disagree the most, namely interpreting the evidence for biological evolution (Chap. 7) and interpreting the anthropological evidence for the uniqueness of humans (Chap. 11).

The brief final chapter (“What is the Next Step?”) has a very promising title but contains very little meat to chew on.

It is no surprise that the SBC moderators tend to side with the RTB position whenever it differs from the BioLogos position. It is also no surprise that I tend to side with the BioLogos position. RTB is very good in the area of cosmological evolution but leaves a bit to be desired in the area of biological evolution. Fazale Rana, the VP of research for RTB, demonstrates in the book that there are a number of things that he doesn’t accept about biological evolution, including the Cambrian explosion and convergence in evolution. Perhaps this explains why RTB has such a problem with biological evolution.

This book provides the clearest-yet description of the positions of these two organizations as well as a clarification of their differences. I can recommend it to Christians who want to learn more about the intersection of biological evolution and Christian theology.

This guest review was contributed by Paul Bruggink, a retired technical specialist whose review interest is in the area of science and faith. This is his fourth review on Bob on Books.